Mia Xara 1 September 2009

The year my father died my cat TK died first. Tutankhamen was a king of cats. He started out as a nervous black Oriental kitten that shied from noise and people and ended up as one of the main characters at Sunday Lunches. He owned the house, hunted the suburb and when he died, I received cards of sympathy and gifts that emphasized the effect his life had on many people.

I really missed TK when he was gone. I was heart-broken. And inside I knew his death was a reflection of something much bigger. When my father died later in the year I knew then what TK’s death forebode. My heart was already broken and was turned to stone.

Between the deaths I went Greece with my father. As he walked through the village and Tripoli  he greeted all and sundry with a hearty “Mia Xara” . The Greek equivalent of “ciao”, I knew then that I would get two cats and call them Mia and Xara. I just couldn’t think of who they would be or where they would come from.

Over the year of TK’s illness I confided in some of my patients. Roy and Carol touched a cord within me. Roy has diabetes, and had to be transferred to St Augustines Hospital one day when I was on call and Kingsway was full. He had fractured his tibia and was treated by a colleague. Roy always confides in me, “not that I want to bad mouth another doctor”, but my colleague did not give him full attention or care and sympathy. He went on to develop a non-union of the tibia which I decided to treat with a Physiostim ( an electromagnetic device that stimulates bone healing) and a cast and eventually it healed. We had regular monthly visits over 18 months, and they talked about their cats, Russian Blues, and slowly started a marketing campaign to win me over. They brought little pictures, told me of their habits (head butting is a classic) and then invited me to see some of their kittens. I visited their little house full of cats with big hearts, but really did not have the heart to want new kittens. I was worried about the two old cats I had, Stormy and Servie, at home, about being responsible for the new ones, about all sorts of things. And would any cat measure up to TK?

Eventually after a few visits and meeting the sire and mother Russian Blues I chose two that I could take at the end of December, when I would have some time to be at home, and after Christmas at Mbona.

Just after paying for Xara and acknowledging Mia as a gift from Carol in thanks for my treating Roy, we went to Johannesburg for George Bizos’ 80th birthday celebration, where my father was the master of ceremonies. He had the time of his life, but definitely was tired. I remember at the end when 2 young girls sang traditional Greek songs he glowed from within he was so happy. Maybe it was something else…

Early the next morning he died.  I hadn’t told him about Mia Xara; how it reminded me of him in Greece, and how happy a greeting it was. Directly translated “Mia means “one” and “Xara” means happiness. Mia Xara.

They were named Mia Grisha and Xara Shura, as they had to have Russian names for their legacy. Grisha means ‘watchful” and Shura “defender of man” in Russian. They were brothers and are the closest of friends.

They spent their days in my study. Mom was with us for that week and spent time with them. They were soft and cuddly, and so playful and confident. In the beginning they slept on the bookshelves and nothing was safe. Books and ornaments went flying at night, waking us. Covers were torn off as if they were the skin on the carcass of a dead animal. Page corners were eaten.

Always near each other, on the lookout and more often than not ambushing each other, they had arrived at their home forever . Mia watches out for Xara, and Xara defends all of us from being too serious. He is a complete hedonist, happy to stretch out on a bed, couch table or anywhere. Ecstatic in the morning when he gets his fix of catnip. Bounding up onto the bed to get a hug and scratch. Purring in contentment. Mia is lively. He eats more but is thinner, his taught muscles rippling under his blue fur.

Russian Blues are not blue, but  silver grey, with a double layer of shorthair. Never tell an owner that they are grey! They may be Royal cats from Archangel in Russia, with lines unchanged since the made their way to England before the turn of the last century.

They love company; often I look up from where I am sitting, working or eating, and find them under my chair, or on the couch nearby or the chair next door. Sprawled out elegantly.

More than the technicalities, they are a legacy of a home of cats, filled with memories.

Mia Xara as kittens on the shelf

Gl’Uomini Degli Dei – The People of the Gods 4 July 2011

Last year we did an amazing walk above the Amalfi coast, Il Sentiero Degli Dei, “The Path of the Gods”. This ancient path was used by shepherds and traders from a mountain top village called Agerola (where, you ask?) to Positano (everybody knows where), a picturesque seaside village on the Amalfi coast and setting of the beautiful film, “Il Postino” , about a postman in love who is counselled by the greatest love poet , Pablo Neruda. The walk ends with two thousand steps descending into the village.

The views along the way are breathtaking, as your eye corners cliffs and swoops down like an eagle to the bay five hundred meters away and seven hundred meters down.  Along the slopes are olive groves, vineyards, vegetable patches and patios that absorb the light showered down by the gods. The path is marked by some CAI (Club Alpino Italiano or the Alpine Club of Italy) Rosso Bianco markers. CAI members express their individuality by making new, and I am sure they think better, paths with some other combination of Bianco Rosso.  You can easily lose your way at some intersections, so you have to pay attention to commune signs and old hand carved signs in wood, hung framing the island of Capri in the haze.

Everyone knows about the Amalfi coast. Everyone knows of the jewels that sparkle in the stunning vistas. But the real treasure is hidden. Walk through the arches into the main piazza of Amalfi. There is a church to your right with high steps and the large tourist outdoor cafes. I was there last year and my eye caught a young Italian beauty dancing through the crowds holding a tray of three espresso cups. I rushed to follow her under an old arcade and walked into Titziano’s pasticerie. Last year his sister was helping out as his wife had just delivered twins a few days earlier. He baptised us as travellers, not tourists, a badge we proudly wear. His miniature tarts and sweets exploded with flavours as big as mountains in your mouth. His coffee made with old plunge pressure espresso machines announced that this was historic for its difference.

Look skywards from Amalfi after a ride by tragetto (ferry) from Positano and you catch a glimpse of San Lazzaro and the edge of an old Saracen fortress. San Lazzaro is a frazione of the rough diamond of Agerola. Although it is only 5km away as the eagles swoop, they town lies 25km away by hairpin bends and narrow tar road. Last year we arrived in the pouring rain and eventually made our way to Da Ginanino’s, a restaurant just down the road where we stayed at Il Principe, a refurbished floor of rooms in an old apartment block. Named after Toto, a famous Italian comedian with a long nose and longer list of comedies, including one called “Il Principe”. At Da Gianino we met Salvatore, the son of famous Gianino, the chef who has appeared on RAI (Italian TV) cooking shows. He has designed his own special pasta, a rotella. The rotella arrived, a Swiss roll of double pasta with mozzarella and bathed in a chunky vegetable broth .Last year Salvatore would not accept a tip, and gave us a whole lot of local cheeses, including fior di late from his brothers cheese farm, and this year he just served us a meal we did not order and then the next night took us out to a slow food restaurant in Sorrento where he learned to make pizza.  And drove us back home.  And delivered even more cheese to Il Principe the next morning while we slept and he started his cheese delivery rounds along the coast on a Wednesday. A package of biscotti, bagels, cheese and his own aromatic and not too sweet limoncelo from trees in his own garden. His wife Monica popped in and out of our lives in Agerola, bubbling with joy and passion, adding colour and laugher to a memorable visit to the Amalfi coast.

As you enter Sorrento there is a viewing pint over the Gulf of Naples. We watched a stunning sunset and focussed on the padlocks fixed to the railing engraved with the names of couples, engaged, married or in love. Sometimes all three. I felt like leaving one there, from us to them. Instead I wrote this to let you know about these incredible people and this amazing place.

The Power of Love: Padlocks on the Bay of Naples

Sam the Man – May 1992

This is piece I wrote when I visited the Lowveld in 1992:

Sam Njima lives in Lilyvale, Mpumalanga. Of course, when he became Sam the Man it was part of the Transvaal Lowveld. Then it was a lot wilder but many of the people that moved to his village had been forcibly moved from some of the Varty and Rattray lands after Verwoerd made some changes to the policies of  our land. Now lately, especially since the floods, there are a few Mocambicans as well. They started coming with their war and even have separate parts of the villages that they inhabit. They Speak Shangaan but with a deeper tone. Their houses, which are rural shanty shacks, are indistinguishable from their local neighbours.

Sam the Man is called that by everybody in Lilyvale where he is regarded as a lifetime mayor. He has a petrol filling station that has just had a revamp by B.P. and is the smartest building in town. There is general dealer which does not rate as much as the garage in looks. He donated money and built the primary school. It is a small clean white building with pretty Walt Disney characters handsomely painted on the walls. When I went past it was Women’s Day and all the children were out collecting firewood as gifts for their mothers. Sam the Man also donated money for the new clinic. Here the new government has helped and the clinic is staffed and administers vaccinations and gives out C.D.’s. There isn’t much electricity in Lilyvale and the radio is quite popular. C.D. is for ConDom. The locals don’t believe much in this plot. Although more and more of their friends and family are dying from Slim Disease and newer cemeteries are springing up, there is no danger. Life goes on and girlfriends are a way of life for a man.

Sam the Man is over fifty now. He has a big stomach and a few fat wives. He is a wealthy man. And he is very respected in the political circles of the land. He was not really an activist. Sure, he was troubled by the security police but that was only afterwards, and by then he was Sam the Man and even they could not touch him. Well, almost. At fifty he moved back to his home village of Lilyvale. He had a lot of money by then. Blood money to some.

He was not famous before, but after 1976 he was. He did not do much to change things, yet he was the one that changed them. He did not go to prison for it, but he was the one that set the wheels in motion after those in prison had started the drive. Sam the Man has children at school still, his youngest is only twleve. He will be a teenager next year, and will go to school learning Shangaan and English. He will have to learn English, to be able to entertain all the foreigners that come to his country nowadays, to see the wild animals, to see the sunset, and eagles flying in the open spaces. Perhaps he may even become the kind that they call “The Ranger”, showing people the wild animals in all their glory. Probably showing them all the animals stripped of their glory, but the foreigners will see them. His father, Sam the Man, also showed the foreigners.

Sam the man was a photographer. He did not take pictures of wildlife. He did not take pictures of death. But he became rich after they published his famous photograph on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Hector Peterson was on the cover, in the arms of his friends. Hector Peterson was killed on June 16, 1976: Soweto Day


An original Black & White print from my own darkroom, circa 1990: An Elephant in Kruger

Ta Engenia tou Manelis – The Blessing of Manelis’ Restaurant, Artemisio, Greece 6 July 2011

The drive into Artemisio is peaceful, through an avenue lined with plane trees. A few are missing, like a black hole in place of a tooth in the mouth of a weather hardened villager. The gap in the trees has been replaced by iconostasios, white miniature churches, in memory of the young men who were driving too fast and killed themselves.

As the avenue ends, the road forks. On the right is the old village fountain where we used to draw water before pipes were laid in the seventies. In the angle of the fork is a larger iconostasio, welcoming all. “I Analipsi to Theou”, or “The Ascension of Christ”.  Analipsi is also the name of the church on a ledge high up on Artemisio Mountain, a church that Old Man Natsi built when his heath miraculously improved after returning from America.

On the left is the Manelis house. It used to be run down, built in the 20’s. The sisters, one of them my grandmother Marigo, were excluded from inheriting this house. My grandmother’s exclusion came by virtue of the Nuptial Contract signed in 1937. Her husband John accepted ownership of 3 pieces of land, 2 of fields and the third a smaller vineyard at a place called Maneta Lino from her brothers. I have a copy of this document.  One of the paragraphs ends with:” Ioanis (John) Stathoulis declared that (he) gladly accepts the abovementioned dowry and the conditions herein related.”  Conditions that still run in the blood of our veins, conditions that we struggle to honour.

Two years ago I walked past the Manelis house. John Manelis, my grandmother’s nephew called me in to see the corner where she used to wash clothes, and the worn stone used to rub the old soap that would never lather. Much like the stones in the Tugela River where the Zulu woman do the washing. Except the river that runs through Artemisio is dry except when the snow melts and it rains in winter.

Tonight was the engenia of his new restaurant, the first modern eatery serving paradosiaka (traditional) food, in our village.  There are only 3 other cafes unlike any you might imagine, where basic food may fill a lone bachelor or husband who has been kicked out by an angry wife.

The crowd gathered from 8pm and collected sweets and cool drinks from a central table in the garden. The sweets portend a sweet future for the new business. At 8:30 pm the priest arrived and quickly proceeded to bless the new undertaking and then anointed all with Holy water sprinkled on basil leaves. Funny how the Greeks don’t eat basil but use it to bless everything, and keep flies away. The preist extended himself with the blessing, and went on about commitment and faith and the youth, a conversation I mirrored at his house two evenings later with Theodore, an engineering lecturer from Megalopolis who is my grandmothers second nephew.  The priest, in his mid seventies, had a sparkle in his eye and stunned me when he asked Theodore if he uses Facebook to teach.

After the blessing waiters took orders for the usual Greek mezzedaikia, salads and cheeses and 3 meats: roasted lamb, pork and goat. The evening was almost balmy in the mountains, promise of a warm summer to come. The young village children had been roped in to help as waiters, all smartly dressed in black trousers and white shirts. I hope their future extends beyond waitering, what with the crisis in Greece and Europe at the moment. The orders were slow and mixed up, but the 200 people outside and on the veranda ate well and all paid a token as thank for the meal and for good luck. In the old days, they would have walked past an open till and placed money in the drawer. Nowadays they might make a surreptitious withdrawal or two.

If you want to eat at “O Manelis, aim for Tripoli in the Peloponnese and take the narrow road that leads to Artemisio. You’ll pass the ruins of Ancient Mantinea on your right, one of the oldest city states of Greece in ancient time.  The restaurant is on your left after the avenue of trees. Tell John I told you to go eat there, and don’t order, tell him to bring you “tis oras”, of the hour. Enjoy.

Standing Prayers at the Engenia

The Lost Immigrants 6 September 2002

Edinburgh’s late summer was beautiful. The festival was over and a lazy peace enveloped the city. It was warm and the people were warm. The crowd of orthopaedic surgeons from South Africa were great fun albeit that a large part of the fun involved trying as many pubs as possible. This all culminated with the end of the festival firework show, which was quite spectacular. It was also the night of our second visit to Cappadocia, a Turkish take-away which we tried a few nights before. The doner kebab was a great giro with fresh salad and lashings of a spicy chilli sauce. Eugene did not eat that night and the cook noticed it. The second night he ate, and the cook noticed that as well. He noticed too that Eugene was a huge man but of the earth. He probably didn’t notice that he had typical rugby ears.

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

Our last night in Edinburgh was sad; we had made new friends and built up lasting relationships. We had learnt a lot and drunk a lot. So we visited a few pubs on that last night.  The weather had changed slightly.    It was cooler and there had been some rain the previous evening, but it was still unseasonably warm. I went for a long run around Arthur’s Seat. The surroundings are not quite the Highlands but there are two pretty little dams that look like lochs. I ran up through a saddle and saw ravens struggling like crowbars bending in the wind. Their cruel call came at me straight from Macbeth with the three witches just around the corner. They were not ….

So we spent the last evening at Cappadocia. There was a severe earthquake in Greece 3 days before and the Turkish government was the first to send a search and rescue team. Strange, as they had just had 12 000 of their faithful killed by one largely because of fly-by-night builders who did not adhere to the appropriate codes. When we arrived at the little take-away we rushed in and it was empty. Eugene had hesitated outside to see if the owner would miss him. Indeed he did and came rushing out to drag the giant in by his arm. Indeed a warm welcome for a stranger that had eaten there only once before. We all ordered Doner Kebabs again and he laid on all the extras as if we were all good friends of the family. Haig, who did not order any food and asked for a coke, was given this on the house. We struggled through the huge meals looking at posters of Turkey that are Greece in a different language. Or the other way around.

As we relished our food a couple walked in. They were Turkish, we all presumed. In their late twenties and he looking like any Greek palikari while she was a goddess. Her hair was straw coloured with the sun still setting. Her eyes were blue grey like the med at midday in the midsummer’s shimmering waves. They went behind to the two tables at the back of the counter and sat and chatted; she animatedly with her hands while she rolled up a cigarette in a slip of paper and then smoked it. She did not eat. I think they just had coffee and then they left. As she passed I noticed a crucifix in her ear – she couldn’t be Turkish. She said goodbye to the old man and hugged him. She then left with her partner talking Greek and shedding the Scottish weather as if she had oil on her body as she got out of the sea.

So I called the old man over. I asked him if the couple was Greek, which he confirmed and added that he had many Greek students in winter that spent their evenings there. I told him that I too was Greek and half expected myself to have a human rights abuse argument with him. I didn’t, and instead introduced myself to Kerrim, who by now had his arm affectionately around my shoulder. We spoke of the Turkish earthquake disaster and then obliquely about Cyprus. He shrugged his shoulders and said that we were friends and that politics was ugly. Indeed it was. So we carried on and I asked him if he had a small coffee. I could not bring myself to say a Turkish coffee. He apologised that he only had the coffee and briki at home, but wanted to kerasi us some cappuccinos. We were now part of the family. Some Scots came in while we were chatting and he ignored them essentially till they left so he could continue with his new friends. We told him where we were from and our profession. Faf Labuschagne, a lost immigrant as well had joined us and through him we were able too guarantee Kerrim access to the best orthopaedics that the NHS had to offer.

I gave him my business card and he proudly stored it; in exchange I got a take-out menu with his hand-written name. He is sixty years old and married a Scottish lass with two children aged 7 and 5. He proudly showed us photos of them. John had pictures of his two daughters and he shared a bond across the sea and cultures in a moment of pure pride for the two of them. Kerrim had just opened this shop 6 months ago and was working everyday from lunch 4 p.m. until closing at 3 or 4 a.m.. A hard life at sixty, but not without its rewards; like the time a Greek student brought a belly dancer to dance just for him as a thank you for all his kindness. His face lit up at the gesture but also at the vision of this nubile dancer gracing his small storefront.

He used to be a singer, first in Turkey and then in the UK. He was even on television and he proudly showed us the review in the newspaper, the faded yellow paper glinting like gold foil in his eyes. Then out came an ancient photo album of him in his Austin Moore outfits: velvet jackets and frills creasing an ancient microphone. He shoed and belittled himself but enjoyed sharing his experience of San Francisco with us: he stayed mistakenly in a gay hotel and when he tried to date a hot babe she refused him on confusing grounds. But once the misunderstanding was cleared up he had the time of his life.

Then it was time to return to Pollock Halls; we hugged goodbye in the true Mediterranean fashion and left warm in our new friendship. At the landing outside there was a beggar. Eugene dragged him in as he begged for money, put £5 on the counter and ordered Kerrim to give him a doner kebab. Just like that. Just like the silent moment Eugene took in prayer before his meal.

Constantinople 6 May 2011

Here is an answer:

Some Fill With Each Good Rain
There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.

In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.

There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
For that.
It’s a long story and it’s not my poem. It belongs to a Sufi poet, Hafiz, from the 14th Century.

I am so confused about going to Istanbul. I have on this same hard drive copies of letters written by my father dated 21 August 1974, my 12th birthday. Co-signed by his friend George Bizos. To the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, the Ambassador to Pretoria of the United States Government and the Ambassador to Pretoria of Her Majesties Government. All decrying the behaviour of the Turkish government in occupying Cyprus. This shortly after we had returned from Greece. I remember the morning clearly, at Hotel Solon in Tolo, where my father took my brother and told him that he was the head of the family now. My father had been conscripted to fight in the Greek Army. The nation was tuned in to black and white TV with military marches blaring while Turkey invaded Cyprus with American hardware. Nothing has changed, in the week that America assassinated Osama bin Laden. Or murdered him. For what are we if we stoop to the same level as our enemies, if not the Devil himself?

In 2002 I wrote this about a Turkish Takeaway called Cappadocia in Edinburgh. The piece was called The Lost Immigrants:

The story starts with me not being too happy about supporting a Turkish business.  But then again, they were the closest thing to family for me in Scotland. Still, I remember Nicosia and the Red Line that divided families and destroyed lives. It was and it still is sad. But one of the soundest principles by which one can live is never to generalise. It is useful having such basic principles. We always learn our lessons the hard way.

So best not to generalise, even about the Americans. Who can imagine the details of their existence?

Who can imagine the details of anyone’s existence?

So here I sit in  Turkish Airline’s new Airbus en route to Istanbul. Originally to see the Grand Prix, with Caterina trying to open all sorts of doors at the race for us to enjoy. So far the best seems lunch with Mercedes on Saturday.
But the best after some thought is that I am going to what was Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium Christendom, to visit Agia Sophia. And at the same time see feel the streets Hafiz and Rumi walked on, perhaps to find an old book of his poems.

Only to discover that Ataturk banned Sufis. They are now tolerated but are not a force within the confusion of this non-secular nation of Islam.

And so we arrived in a cold and wet Istanbul. I exercised a bit then slept and then we made our way to Istanbul Park, the Grand Prix circuit on the Asian side. The first Formula 1 car that started up and shook out of the garage got me feeling like a little boy with a new bicycle. Pure unbridled joy! I took lots of pictures, mainly panned shots and had a lot of fun. It was cold in the stands.

That night I wrote in my journal:  Wow, I can see why Alexander the Great was enamoured by the Persians. They are a gentle, beautiful, quiet nation,  full of life and joy and passion. Let me try explaining the appreciation:
Turkey works. They have an economy that is still growing at 6 % per annum. The city of Istanbul has a real European capital infrastructure. There are huge suspension bridges over the Bosporus Straits, highways and intersections with automatic toll registration. They have their own airline fleet. Friendly airline staff, even friendly ground staff. An ethos on looking after tourists. Sure, the Turks like to bargain in a shop, or worse in the Grand Bazaar. And there are beggars. And they are Muslim. But the founder of modern day Turkey, in the beginning of the 20th century, outlawed the burka  and adopted the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic script. The hotel we stayed in was clean, did not smell of smoke and the staff were quiet and unobtrusive as they went about their work. I was walking up one flight of steps from Dom’s room on  the last morning , at about 8am, carrying a small suitcase and one of the cleaners insisted that he carry the bag for me. Genuinely. And was disappointed when I would not let him.

But there is a negative dichotomy. The Turks do not have freedom of speech. There are over 300 journalists and outspoken professionals in detention. Prison really. They have internal strife with the Kurds. They have odd bedfellows in Libya and the USA. They are very chauvinistic.

And they have invaded the northern half of Cyprus. That hurts. The fact that they conquered Constantinople shows their military and organizational superiority. And I wonder at the military and organizational inferiority of my home nation, the Greeks. Still resting on their laurels proclaiming them as the fathers of democracy. Pity they have not realised that has no value in the financial bale out package offered by the European Union.

The Roman empire ruled over the Greeks for a few centuries and the Greeks have got over it. The Macedonians ruled over large tracts of the near and Middle East and they seem to have got over it. The Crusades stole the Lions from Agia Sophia’s towers and left them in St Mark’s Square in Venice. The Ottomans seem to have got over it.

The epitome of a name change, for those of us familiar with South African modern history. Istanbul became the new name for Constantinople when the Ottomans conquered Byzantine in the 1400’s.  Greeks still refer to it as “Konstatinopouli”, somewhat romantically and also bitterly, the way hard liners would refer to Verwoerdburg instead of attending a cricket test at Centurion.

So yes, Turkey is complicated. Even for a South Africa Greek with Cypriot family.

Agia Sofia